From where she is sitting beside me, Greta nuzzles my forehead, reminding me that I'm bleeding. I wonder if I'll need stitches, if this will launch my father into another tirade about why I should have become something relatively safer, like a bounty hunter or the leader of a bomb squad.
Someone hands me a gauze pad, which I press against the cut above my eye. When I glance up I see it's Fitz, my best friend, who happens to be a reporter for the paper with the largest circulation in our state. "What does the other guy look like?" he asks.
"I got attacked by a tree."
"No kidding? I always heard their bark is worse than their bite."
Fitzwilliam MacMurray grew up in one of the houses beside mine; Eric Talcott lived in the other. My father used to call us Siamese triplets. I have a long history with both of them that includes drying slugs on the pavement with Morton's salt, dropping water balloons off the elementary school roof, and kidnapping the gym teacher's cat. As kids, we were a triumverate; as adults, we are still remarkably close. In fact, Fitz will be pulling double duty at my weddingas Eric's best man, and as my man-of-honor.
From this angle, Fitz is enormous. He's six-four, with a shock of red hair that makes him look like he's on fire. "I need a quote from you," he says.
I always knew Fitz would wind up writing; although I figured he'd be a poet or a storyteller. He would play with language the way other children played with stones and twigs, building structures for the rest of us to decorate with our imagination. "Make something up," I suggest.
He laughs. "Hey, I work for the New Hampshire Gazette, not the New York Times."
"Excuse me . . . ?"
We both turn at the sound of a woman's voice. Holly Gardiner's mother is staring at me, her expression so full of words that, for a moment, she can't choose the right one. "Thank you," she says finally. "Thank you so much."
"Thank Greta," I reply. "She did all the work."
The woman is on the verge of tears, the weight of the moment falling as heavy and sudden as rain. She grabs my hand and squeezes, a pulse of understanding between mothers, before she heads back to the rescue workers who are taking care of Holly.
There were times I missed my mother desperately while I was growing upwhen all the other kids at school had two parents at the Holiday Concert, when I got my period and had to sit down on the lip of the bathtub with my father to read the directions on the Tampax box, when I first kissed Eric and felt like I might burst out of my skin.
Fitz slings his arm over my shoulders. "It's not like you missed out," he says gently. "Your dad was better than most parents put together."
"I know," I reply, but I watch Holly Gardiner and her mother walk all the way back to their car, hand in hand, like two jewels on a delicate strand that might at any moment be broken.
That night Greta and I are the lead story on the evening news. In rural New Hampshire, we don't get broadcasts of gang wars and murders and serial rapists; instead, we get barns that burn down and ribbon-cuttings at local hospitals and local heroes like me.
My father and I stand in the kitchen, getting dinner ready. "What's wrong with Sophie?" I ask, frowning as I peer into the living room, where she lays puddled on the carpet.
"She's tired," my father says.
She takes an occasional nap after I pick her up from kindergarten, but today, when I was on a search, my father had to bring her back to the senior center with him until closing time. Still, there's more to it. When I came home, she wasn't at the door waiting to tell me all the important things: who swung the highest at recess, which book Mrs. Easley read to them, whether snack was carrots and cheese cubes for the third day in a row.
Copyright © 2005 by Jodi Picoult. Printed by permission. Excerpted from the book Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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